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Osceola's $100 million for rodeo, resort demands scrutiny

At noon Sunday — while many of you were still at church or enjoying family time — Osceola County commissioners held a meeting most folks didn't know about.

There, they made plans to give away more than $100 million worth of public money and incentives.

We're talking $50 million to build a 24,000-seat rodeo arena, another $50 million to subsidize a private resort, annual ticket guarantees of $16 million, marketing money and more.

The last time Central Florida considered a deal this big — building a Major League Soccer stadium (which actually involved less public money) — Orange County leaders scrutinized the project for more than a year.

In Osceola, they gave an initial thumbs up after a whopping 25 minutes of discussion.

The leader of the state's leading taxpayer-watchdog group was aghast.

"What kind of local government body meets on a Sunday to approve such a huge taxpayer giveaway?" asked Dan Krassner, the head of Integrity Florida.

"At least they won't have to pay extra taxpayer-funded subsidies for the rodeo clowns, the county commission is up for the job."

Clowns may be rough. But these officials did look a lot more like cheerleaders than watchdogs.

Chairman Fred Hawkins Jr. declared himself "pro-rodeo."

That was followed by Commissioner Frank Attkisson urging his fellow board members to "forget about the money" and think about all the famous rodeo riders who would come to town and inspire kids, if Osceola successfully steals the National Finals Rodeo from Las Vegas.

"I want us to be the community that dreams are built on," Attkisson said."I wanna be able to take your son or daughter and dream of being a Trevor Brazile ... of being a Tuf Cooper ... a Lisa Lockart, Brittany Pozzi or Kaley Bass."

Um ... what?

Listen, I'm not looking down my nose at the rodeo finals. I'd back a proposal to bring a manure expo to town if it created jobs and helped the economy.

But only if it was thoroughly scrutinized first — and if I was convinced taxpayers weren't getting hosed.

So far, I'm not convinced.

As I studied the five-page agreement that Osceola endorsed Sunday, I saw clause after clause that promised taxpayer money going out — and very little of guarantee of it coming in. (I did, however, spot a provision to make sure the county gets 300 free tickets to each rodeo event.)

And frankly, some of the promises sound simply pie-in-the-sky.

Like the American Music Resort — which Osceola says will involve $1.5 billion in private money ... from secret investors they can't yet name.

Do you realize how massive that is? We're talking more money than it took to build Animal Kingdom. Or Islands of Adventure.

It'd be boffo if it happens. The rodeo and resort could be a historic boon to the local economy.

But right now, Osceola can't even say who they're dealing with.

Perhaps you see why I think this deal needs more vetting.

Commissioners say we will get it.

In fact, if I found any solace in this big, rushed deal, it was that commissioners I spoke with agreed that my concerns were well-founded.

Both Attkisson and Hawkins vowed scrutiny and transparency going forward.

"Our citizens must be brought in," Attkisson said. "I anticipate plenty of vetting on this."

Vowed Hawkins: "I will definitely be looking at all the numbers to make sure they fit. Because at the end of the day, people will hold me accountable."

They also said Sunday's agreement was merely tentative. (Though it struck me as more than that, void of crucial words like "nonbinding.")

Listen, no one wants to look a gift-horse in the mouth.

But real deals — good deals — aren't rushed through in high-pressure, act-now-or-regret-it-later fashion.

And that's something you'd think leaders in time-share country would already know.

smaxwell@tribune.com or 407-420-6141

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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